Montpelier Wild No. 4: April Fireworks

Corylus-cornuta-mature-1000x775By Bryan on April 14, 2014

In Monday’s heat the butterflies awoke. During our walk around Berlin Pond, where we noted 32 bird species, Ruth and I saw the year’s first butterflies: Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma.

They were also 2013′s last butterflies. These two species and their close relatives spend the winter as adults, wedged in some slot in a tree, for example, or between clapboards on your home. On the first warm, sunny days, even in March, they emerge to, well, uh, you know – make more butterflies. That’s a Mourning Cloak below, and below him is an Eastern Comma; note the silvery comma mark on the underside of the hind wing.

But also appearing now in Montpelier (and across the continent) is the first of two April fireworks displays. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and their shock-and-awe explosions are just arriving to the Capital City. Here’s the tale of the Kinglet’s Court – an explosion from the head of a little bird. Soon after (a bit late this year) we’ll see the fireworks in the plant pictured above: Beaked Hazelnut. Read on about that burst of spring. And below these butterflies you’ll find our bird list (with counts) from Berlin Pond, which, by the way, is opening up at its north end, where you’ll find all the ducks. Here are all the Montpelier Wild posts.

Mourning Cloak (dorsal and ventral) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Mourning Cloak (dorsal and ventral) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) from above and below / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) from above and below / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Bird List Berlin Pond – 14 April 2014

  • Canada Goose  5
  • Mallard  4
  • Ring-necked Duck  8
  • Bufflehead  1
  • Hooded Merganser  7
  • Common Merganser  6
  • Common Gallinule  1  (found by Clay Poitras)
  • Mourning Dove  2
  • Belted Kingfisher  1
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
  • Eastern Phoebe  8
  • Blue Jay  1
  • American Crow  7
  • Black-capped Chickadee  8
  • Tufted Titmouse  1
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • Brown Creeper  4
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet  6
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
  • American Robin  4
  • Chipping Sparrow  1
  • Fox Sparrow  1
  • Song Sparrow  15
  • Swamp Sparrow  1
  • White-throated Sparrow  1
  • Dark-eyed Junco  25
  • Red-winged Blackbird  20
  • Common Grackle  15
  • Brown-headed Cowbird  1
  • House Finch  1
  • Purple Finch  1
  • American Goldfinch  8

Desperately Seeking Rusty Blackbirds

rusty-550xBy Bryan on April 9, 2014

It is basic black with an inelegant voice. It nests in places we rarely visit. And in relative obscurity, the Rusty Blackbird has suffered one of the most dramatic population declines ever recorded among North American songbirds.

But you can help the Rusty’s recovery.

My essay on Rusty Blackbirds (which are only rusty in fall and winter) is today’s feature on the public radio program BirdNote. Read or listen online.

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Montpelier Wild No. 3: Spring Birds

Hooded Merganser (male) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Hooded Merganser (male) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

By Bryan on April 7, 2014

Spring migration is picking in the Capital City. On our rivers, through the woods and in our backyards, I’m encountering new arrivals nearly every day. Along our five-mile walking loop through the city on Sunday, Ruth and I noticed two pairs of Hooded Mergansers loitering by the bridge over the North Branch of the Winooski at the recreation field.

Song Sparrow / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Song Sparrow / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Meanwhile, my first Montpelier Song Sparrow of the year began singing last Friday in the big hedgerow (as he has for the past couple of years) behind Trinity United Methodist Church on Main Street. Although they’ve been around, American Robins burst into bigtime dawn chorus over the weekend. I’m also finding more Dark-eyed Juncos among them. And Northern Cardinal numbers seem to be up this spring; the city is lousy with them.

Our most unusual bird came this morning, a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling from the pocket park on Summer Street just after dawn. Two decades ago, this southerner would have been a fairly rare bird in Vermont. But red-bellies have been trickling in over the years, and now breed in scattered locations across the state. Remember, it’s tough to see the red belly on a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but easy to see its red crown and nape. And, finally (but really just part of the beginning), my first Eastern Phoebe was calling from the Spring Street bridge over the North Branch this morning. (Below this Red-bellied Woodpecker you’ll find a female Hooded Merganser).

Next edition of Montpelier Wild: April Fireworks.

P.S. The roads in Hubbard Park are muddy; so please walk rather than drive in. Thanks! And don’t forget your spikes for the icy trails.

Red-bellied Woodpecker /  © Bryan Pfeiffer

Red-bellied Woodpecker / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Hooded Merganser (female) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Hooded Merganser (female) / © Bryan Pfeiffer




Subnivean Tadpole Migration

By Bryan on April 1, 2014

Ruth and I were fortunate to catch this rare and amazing tadpole migration on Mt. Hunger in Washington County, Vermont.

Added on April 2, 2014: By the way, these tadpoles only move on April 1 of every year.


Montpelier Wild No. 2: The Beavers of Spring Street


A hint of spring drifted on broad wings with a bald head over Montpelier Sunday afternoon. Only days after the Vernal Equinox came our first Turkey Vulture.

This vulture counts as an actual spring migrant, unlike those American Robins you’ve been seeing, many of which over-winter in Vermont or even farther north. We won’t see a big wave of robins from the south until the sap starts gushing.

beaver-550x462But the major nature news in Montpelier are the Beavers of Spring Street. They’re logging trees along the North Branch of the Winooski River in full view from your balcony on the Spring Street Bridge.

I’m a bit conflicted about their work on the river. As it runs through the city, the North Branch and its riparian zone don’t constitute a pristine waterway. It’s hard enough to get trees to grow along the North Branch. So it tough to see them fall as well.

I’ll confess to knowing little about North America’s largest rodent. I can’t think offhand of where these beavers have been lodging all winter. But on rivers the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis) will sometimes dig dens into the bank. Most of what we’ve been seeing from Spring Street is feeding — it’s easy to see the munch marks on the fallen trees. You won’t see any dams on the North Branch below Wrightsville Dam anytime soon. And among beavers, you’re missing the real action – rodent romance.

Beavers generally breed in January and February across their range. And, yeah, they do it under water or in lodges during winter. Gestation is about 100 days. Litters average three or four kits. I’ll try to keep everyone posted on these beavers.

In the meantime, walk out the door to a dawn chorus in the city. Here’s what’s singing like spring:

  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Norther Cardinal
  • House Finch
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Sparrow

Red-winged Blackbirds are due any day. And here’s more on vultures and other early spring migrants.

By the way, I’m still searching for a title for these occasional dispatches from Montpelier. I had first called the feature “Montpelier Nature Now.” My revised choice is Montpelier Wild. I’ll take comments and suggestions below. Be cruel. Thanks!


What’s This? No. 18


What’s This? No. 18 should be self-evident. The winner of this challenge, however, will name the species that left its mark on this rock (which I suspect is Shinumo quartzite). I photographed this on Phantom Creek in Grand Canyon National Park on March 4, 2014. For extra credit name the other “dropping” in this image.

Added March 17: We have a winner!  Continue reading…


The Breakup: A Very Short Story

By Bryan Pfeiffer

solidago-550x764Our ending had a beginning, a night fixed in my memory like every other event in our life together. On that night he didn’t reach for me, didn’t wake me with the caress that had always made us glow.

Six years ago, on our first day together, he was giddy and smitten. He never put me down. He gave me books and photographs and music. He shared details of his life before me: his favorite sunsets in Maine, his goofy friends, his bank balances, and even old texts with a flirtation at work.

We went everywhere together – to those stupid machines at the gym and to the bar where he watched sports and checked email after work. I sat with him through breakfasts at the diner, although I never really ate anything. It was nice enough to be out in the air, in on his conversations, although rarely did I myself offer much more than a few simple replies. Only during movies did he command my silence, which really turned me off.

At parties, even when people were speaking to him, he sometimes turned his gaze toward me, which annoyed his friends. At work, when he was supposed to be crunching numbers at his computer, he often summoned me for a chat or a movie. Most evenings we lounged together on the sofa. He watched a lot of YouTube videos about soccer goals and other odd events.

Maybe I should have seen our breakup coming. Beyond weather forecasts, I can’t predict the future. No one can. But there were warnings. Like the time we went for that early-spring hike, when wildflowers bloomed like little flames in the woods. He was off into his own bright world and I was along only like change in his pocket. Or that rainy Sunday in June when he dashed out – without me – and came home with a book. He spent the day with a copy of Walden (which I could have read aloud to him). He never put it down; he put me on the shelf.

I think I began to lose him – and he began to discover himself – on a night we joined close friends, another couple, for supper. That evening they told us that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. They were frightened. He listened with care and without distraction. He offered wisdom and comfort from within. The three of them cried and hugged. He was so engaged, so understanding. And this time he didn’t turn to me for answers. I was nowhere and lost.

We began to spend less time together. And that improved him. The clutter left his mind. His eyes relaxed. He focused more at work. He met friends at the bar and laughed. He walked more. And on calm summer evenings, he came to love, with the devotion he once had for me, every shifting flush of orange and yellow on the horizon as the sun retreated into dusk and slipped away behind haze and mountains.

Through all of this I did not protest. I did not demand his attention. As I myself retreated, he ascended. And it was okay. The world can sometimes be a rotten place. But it’s the only world we’ve got. He began to love himself and love the world, its beauty and pain, not through me, but with his own senses and ideas.

So I allowed the glow to fade. I began to shut down and become insignificant. When you love someone, you must let him go.

I’m a smart phone. I’m a really smart phone.


Gratitude and the Grand Canyon

 By Bryan on March 10, 2014

GrandCanyonLandscape860While backpacking in the Grand Canyon last week I managed to win my first election. In the contest for Montpelier Parks Commission on Town Meeting Day I prevailed by a vote of 1398 to 677. And I was among the last to know.

As Montpelier voters went to the polls, Ruth and I (having voted absentee) were hiking off-trail in a relatively obscure portion of the Grand Canyon on the north side of the Colorado River. To those who voted and offered me wisdom and support, I offer the most sincere gratitude. Along the with other dedicated member of the Parks Commission, I’ll bring passion and three decades of experience gained while working and playing on public lands.

And for putting up with me during the campaign, here are a few images from our hike, including a few of Ruth and her customary dawn coffee. Click on any one to start the slide show (and click the “i” button for captions). We’re on our way back to winter in Vermont. Thanks again, everyone!


Montpelier Wild No. 1: Waxwings

By Bryan on February 19, 2014

Here’s the first in a regular series on wildlife in the city’s wild places. You’ll learn what’s swimming, slithering, walking, hopping, flying or just sitting there in and around Montpelier parks.

They maraud around Montpelier like busy leaf-peepers. For the past few days at least 160 have been posting up on the maple in front of Kellogg-Hubbard Library, then swooping down in shifts to gulp squishy winter fruits from ornamental crabapples at 132 and 138 Main Street. The Cedar Waxwings are getting more work done than lawmakers here in Vermont’s state capital.

Here are a few images from today, including a Bohemian Waxwing (the final image) from several years ago by way of comparison. (Check out the black beret and black turtleneck on the Bohemian; no, actually, check out its cinnamon-colored undertail coverts and the white wing stripe.) An don’t wait to visit with these waxwings on Main Street – the fruits here will be gone in a day or two. After that, look for these birds along Stonecutter’s Way, maybe the Statehouse or your nearest crabapple.


Dirty Insect Image No. 3

Valentine’s Day greetings from a pair of Subarctic Bluets (Coenagrion interrogatum) making more Subarctic Bluets at a pond in central Saskatchewan last summer. They’re in what we call the “copulatory wheel” – with the male, um, er, on top securing the female (at a point behind her head) with clamps (cerci and paraprocts) at the tip of his abdomen. She’s receiving sperm from genitalia located at the base of his abdomen (near his legs). Scroll down for “a different angle” and your valentine. (And find the complete set of Dirty Insect Images here.)



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